The National Register of Citizens (NRC) following the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has not only created a state of anxiety among the Indians and a period of political and religious ferment within the country but also has spiked tensions and apprehensions among its neighbours especially in Bangladesh. Initially, it did not attract much attention in Bangladesh, but with the sudden rise of illegal penetration from India since November which further proliferated after enactment of the CAA in December, the mood changed quickly. Bangladesh is a country where a large number of the population has been historically anti-India and with the NRC and the CAA, the anti-India sentiments are rapidly spreading.
Though there is no official statement from the Bangladeshi government, but media reports have revealed that over 300 people were arrested by the Bangladesh Border Guard. The detained had claimed that they were citizens of Bangladesh who were coming back to their country from India because of the present situations where they have failed to obtain citizenship, most of whom were Muslims. Last year, NRC provisionally had identified approximately four million supposedly ‘illegal’ people (almost exclusively Muslims) who were branded ‘Bengali’ infiltrators from across the border in Bangladesh. The Sheikh Hasina government has kept their faith on Modi government’s assurance that NRC is an ‘internal matter’ of India and will not affect Bangladesh, but with the recent events, citizens of Bangladesh were forced to concede that this will become a ‘bilateral issue’ between the two countries as the intended eviction destination points towards Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has seen the same type of farce even before across its other international border – Myanmar – a Buddhist majority country. There also a huge section of Muslim people, the Rohingya, were considered to be illegal after living for many generations in that country. They were pushed out and portrayed as ‘Bangladeshis’. Since 2017, over three quarters of a million Rohingyas have been forcibly pushed out of Myanmar. As the chances for returning Rohingyas back to Myanmar almost seems to be zero, despite UN saying otherwise, Bangladesh has resigned to host them permanently and since then the Sheikh Hasina government is straining to pay towards the upkeep of the refugees, despite international aid. Hence, it is as clear as crystal that Bangladesh at no circumstances can afford another similar wave of refugees from India. The NRC threatens to bring in even larger a crisis in Bangladesh than what was caused by Myanmar’s Rohingya eviction. Delhi needs to critically analyse how much their domestic policies are going to affect its neighbouring country, otherwise, the fallout from NRC will unavoidably scar the ties between Dhaka & New Delhi – “almost relatively the last cordial relationship India has left with its neighbours” – the consequences of which could be counter to India’s international interests.
Presently, Bangladesh’s closest neighbour is India and under the incumbent rule of Sheikh Haisina & her Awami League, the ties between India & Bangladesh has been steady and strong. India is not very popular among Bangladeshis – just as Muslims in India are often seen as proxy Pakistanis & Bangladeshis, in the same way Hindus in Bangladesh are considered to be proxy Indians – the Awami League does not play up hostility to India & Hindus. This is in contrast to its main rival – the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In the past BNP had reportedly supported militant in the Indian northeast by providing sanctuary & safe passage of arms & supplies – thus provided a leverage against India. After Hasina came back to power, she reversed that policy and earned ‘thanks’ from Delhi, so that her critics rumoured that India backs her to be in power in exchange. On the other side, BNP had provided friendlier soil to Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence which Hasina government deemed as an enemy agency & thereafter relationship between Bangladesh & Pakistan are acrimonious. There is an excellent trade relationship between the two countries with India being the second largest source of importer in Bangladesh. The two countries also share extensive social & cultural ties. The historical legacy was achieved in 1971 when Indian backed Bangladesh in getting her independence from Pakistan.
However, with the passage of time, there have been a few frictions. The most notable till date is the disagreement over the cross-border water sharing of river Ganga. Before Ganga enters into Bangladesh as Padma, the Farakka Barrage controls its flow – a perennial sore point despite having a standing treaty over sharing the flow of the river. Similar is the issue over sharing of water of the Teesta River. Dhaka has almost essentially given up on Delhi over matters related to water sharing.
These are the key arenas of the Indo-Bangladesh relation. However, the relationship should not only be viewed through bilateral terms but also needs to be understand in terms of trilateral dynamic which involves a major agent – China. China has emerged to be the Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and the main source of imports. Bangladesh had signed China’s ambitious BRI initiative in 2016, which was bitterly opposed by India. China has invested billions of dollars in Bangladesh on various high profile & politically valuable infrastructure projects – most important being the Padma Bridge (a road-rail link) which will improve the access to isolated south-western region of Bangladesh. Additionally, China is also the largest hardware supplier of Bangladeshi military. With all the business that China had brought into Bangladesh especially in the fields of military, the friendship bond has become much stronger between Beijing & Dhaka. Moreover, a huge section of Bangladesh is in favour of Chinese investments, the BRI in particular. In contrast, the relationship with India is strong in cultural and political fields rather than in military & big business.
Now, what adds to India’s woes is if Bangladesh gets flooded with the recognised illegal immigrants from Assam, Bangladeshi resentment will unequivocally be attached to India and thereafter harping on 1971 spirit will no longer help. As Bangladeshis have a great cultural & linguistic affinity for the Assamese Muslims, rancour over their mistreatment will lead to a rise in anti-Indian sentiments among them. This will play into the hands of China as India stands to lose political, historical and social stock that China cannot match. The spike of anger against India might also force the Hasina government to alter its friendly stance. And if this happens, it will simultaneously translate into more political and financial clout for China and will also possibly increase military influence of China on Bangladeshi soil & naval presence in the waters – issues which are already irking Delhi.
Thus, there would be three-fold collateral damage. First, there would be a rise in anti-Indian sentiment. Second, there would be a rise in anti-government sentiment as this provides a fillip to those people who claims that Hasina government is backed by Indian government. And, thirdly, it would bring in a negative impact on the Hindus living in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh had sought a written assurance from Indian government that there would be no eviction into Bangladesh after enactment of CAA. Though Delhi gave verbal assurance in this regard but had refused to give written assurance. It stated that the whole exercise is being carried out in accordance with directions of the Supreme Court of India. The enactment of CAA has cropped up huge concerns within the political leadership in Bangladesh. Though Bangladesh is the 9th most densely populated country of the world, it is at no position to stand up against another flood of refugees as it is already straining to pay for the Rohingyas. For now, Bangladesh considers India to be a ‘big brother’. It remains to be seen how New Delhi deals with these issues, protect and maintain its robust relationship with Bangladesh and simultaneously controls the rise of anti-Indian sentiments among its neighbours.